Zen and the Art of U.S.-China Relations

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WASHINGTON: In the guarded language of diplomacy, "direct, personal and substantive" talks probably come out ahead of "a full and frank exchange of views." The former, according to National Security adviser Sandy Berger, is what Presidents Clinton and Jiang held at the White House Tuesday night. The informal tête-à-tête was "long, almost philosophical," added the effusive Berger.

Philosophical? Well, that's what you get when you're able to show your guest an original draft of the Gettysburg address (which the history-mad Jiang can quote verbatim), and happen to have the National Symphony orchestra playing on your lawn. In this congenial atmosphere, the presidents' conversation apparently ranged across 4,000 years of Chinese history — and the relatively puny 200-year American version.

But here's the surprise: It wasn't just small talk. T words such as Tibet, Taiwan and even Tiananmen — previously considered anathema to such a meeting — were openly discussed. Now that's progress the protesters in nearby Lafayette park knew nothing of. Jiang, it is becoming clear, is a different kind of dictator — and with a "hot line" set to be installed between Beijing and Washington, he and Clinton can philosophize to their hearts' content.